It is not unusual for us, as we go about our business around the town to spot a visitor standing before the Tholsel and gazing up in wonderment at the defiant figure atop the plinth on the opposite side of the street.
How many of us could enlighten visitors should they inquire as to the purpose of the statue and the identity of the figure adorning it?
Just like many of the town’s landmarks, the 1798 Monument has enough stories for a library never mind a book.
A worthy memorial was first planned in the run up to the 1798 centenary celebrations but the 1798 Memorial Committee ran into difficulties with their fundraising efforts.
Even though the foundation stone was laid in November 1898 the monument was not unveiled until June 1907. The intervening years saw not only determined fundraising efforts at home and particularly abroad but also a protracted dispute as to the monuments location.
The committee successfully reached out to Wexford and Irish exiles in England, Australia and North America in their fundraising efforts.
The foundation stone which appropriately was a block of granite from the demolished (1845) Three Bullet Gate was laid amidst great pomp and ceremony in December 1898. The site of the monument had only been decided by the ’98 Memorial Committee one month previously.
A debate had raged for several months over the most appropriate site for the memorial.
Proponents argued the merits of siting it at The Three Bullet Gate, Robert St, The Irishtown and opposite The Tholsel.
Eventually, after a vote off, the Tholsel site won but this meant that the Daubeney Fountain had to be moved slightly down Quay St to make way.
The design of the memorial was entrusted to Fr Edward Foran OSA (1866-1938) a renowned designer, writer, sculptor and painter. He also designed the 1798 monument in Oulart and painted two of the most nationally recognised paintings celebrating the Wexford rebellion, the ‘Battle of the Three Rocks’ and the ‘Battle of Oulart Hill’.
It is a commonly held belief that the figure adorning the monument represents one Matthew Furlong the popular young aide-de-camp to Bagenal Harvey. Furlong was shot by a Crown Forces sniper as he approached the Three Bullet Gate in the early hours of the morning of the 5th June 1798. He was carrying a letter from Harvey addressed to the commander of the town garrison requesting him to surrender to avoid huge loss of life.
Matthew Furlong was carrying a flag of truce at the time and this unchivalrous act so outraged his comrades that they abandoned the plans for a co-ordinated attack at daybreak and launched themselves with fury at the redcoat defenders of the town gate.
There are others who believe that the figure represents the famed “giant with the gold curly hair” John Kelly, the Boy from Killann.
Research would suggest that both theories are wrong however as in many reports of the musings of the ’98 Memorial Committee, the statue is merely referred to as “the insurgent figure”.
A report, dated 1906, of a committee meeting where they viewed photos of the maquette for the sculpture remarks “Litheness, strength, grand proportion, virile defiance, the vengeance of righteous indignation at the unnameable atrocities of a brutal soldiery—all these and other qualities of the outraged, impassioned human being appealing to the God of Battles are pictured here”
It was proposed that the monument would be of white limestone and stand twenty six feet high with a “suitable figure” surmounting it.
Among the many dignitaries who spoke at the unveiling of the statue in June 1907 was Mr. Peter French, MP for South Wexford. I think it is here that the seeds of the belief that the figure is Matthew Furlong were first sown. His emotive speech surely lingered in the memories of the patriotic throng that had gathered at the historic crossroads that day.
In hindsight it would appear that locating this figure of the defiant insurgent at the site of the mainguard where hundreds of rebels lost their lives in front of the arrayed canon and muskets of the crown garrison was appropriate and we should honour their memory each time we pass.
– Myles Courtney – New Ross Street Focus